a heathen

2008.09.09

Cory Doctorow’s got a story over at Tor.com which is pretty cool. It includes a sly little reference to The Cuckoo’s Egg by Cliff Stoll (the 0.75$ error leading to a spy-ring thing). That book was the first thing I ever read about hacking, in probably ’89 or ’90; the first time I heard of telnet or unix. It’s dated as hell now — fuck, it was dated as hell in ’90, I bet, but it’s got humourous little flourishes that make it entertaining even now:



Dave knew my ignorance of obscure Unix commands. I put up the best front I could: “Well, the e flag means list both the process name and environment, and the a flag lists everyone’s process—not just your process. So the hacker wanted to see everything that was running on the system.”

“OK, you got half of ‘em. So what are the g and f flags for?”

“I dunno.” Dave let me flounder until I admitted ignorance.

“You ask for a g listing when you want both interesting and uninteresting processes. All the unimportant jobs, like accounting, will show up. As will any hidden processes.”

“And we know he’s diddling with the accounting program.”

Dave smiled. “So that leaves us with the f flag. And it’s not in any Berkeley Unix. It’s the AT&T Unix way to list each process’s files. Berkeley Unix does this automatically, and doesn’t need the f flag. Our friend doesn’t know Berkeley Unix. He’s from the school of old-fashioned Unix.”

The Unix operating system was invented in the early 1970s at AT&T’s Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. In the late ’70s, Unix zealots from Bell Labs visited the Berkeley campus, and a new, richer version of Unix was developed. Along with hot tubs, leftist politics, and the free speech movement, Berkeley is known for its Unix implementation.

A schism developed between advocates of the small, compact AT&T Unix and the more elaborate Berkeley implementation. Despite conferences, standards, and promises, no consensus has appeared, and the world is left with two competing Unix operating systems.

Of course, our lab used Berkeley Unix, as do all right-thinking folks. East Coast people were said to be biased towards AT&T Unix, but then, they hadn’t discovered hot tubs either.

From a single letter, Dave ruled out the entire computing population of the West Coast. Conceivably, a Berkeley hacker might use an old-fashioned command, but Dave discounted this. “We’re watching someone who’s never used Berkeley Unix.” He sucked in his breath and whispered, “A heathen.”